Author: johnhawthorne

The Challenge of Evangelical Banners

Over the past three weeks, I’ve read three excellent books that created new understandings of our religious world and then tested them in real life settings.

I’ve been following David Fitch’s work since attending a Missio Alliance Learning Commons nearly five years ago. His presentation was based on Prodigal Christianity that he co-wrote with Geoff Holsclaw. I have used the book in my sociology capstone class ever since. The book raises questions about the end of Christendom and makes suggestions on how the church could rethink its stance relative to the broader culture. His next book, Faithful Presence, built upon the ideas in Prodigal as they relate to ministry in a particular local context. As I’ve written here before, Faithful Presence is a concept that James Davison Hunter raised in To Change the World but didn’t expand as much as he could have. David’s work begins to flesh that out in concrete terms.

So when I heard that David’s newest book was dealing with the church in conflict with society (also a theme in Hunter’s book), I eagerly awaited its release date. When The Church of Us Vs. Them arrived in my mailbox, it only took me two days to finish it. I immediately bought copies for a long-term friend in Oregon and for my new pastor, now in her sixth week at our church.

Us Vs. Them is a really important book in light of everything we read in the media, in scholarship, and in commentary regarding evangelicalism in modern society. It has echoes of John Fea’s Believe Me, but adopts an even more useful frame than John’s focus on fear. I will undoubtedly oversimplify what is a complex and interesting argument, but I will try nevertheless.

David adopts the language of political theology and communications in considering how the church has often operated. Central to his argument is the idea that evangelical churches have had a tendency to raise “banners” that separate those who are in (and right) from those who are out (and wrong). This process of creating enemies is important because it breeds in-group solidarity and manages to distance the other.

But the important concept in making this work is that the banner is often a signifier without substance. We know this is the case because no one ever explains precisely what support of the establishment position entails. David uses three primary examples: biblical inerrancy, conversionism, and nationalism — particularly interesting as two of these are components of the Bebbington Quadrilateral (and nationalism is getting close — more below).

Each of the banners serves to create antagonism with those outside the camp. This in turn allows one to caricature the other, minimizing their worth and any value present in their position. One is therefore justified in not engaging with those outside.

These banners are nothing new. The Fundamentalist movement developed in opposition to what the Modernists were up to at the turn of the 20th century. Four decades later, the Evangelical Movement tried to split the difference, claiming the Fundamentalist were too conservative and the Mainliners were liberals who believe in nothing. We’ve always relied on negative referents rather than trying to engage the similarities that exist among the various parts of Christ’s Church (looking at you, Eric Erickson) to say nothing of values we might share with out unchurched neighbors.

When the signifier lacks substance, it is adopted as a component of identity. Decades ago I had a friend in a conservative denomination tell me that if all the rules disappeared tomorrow, he wouldn’t know who he was. I tried to gently ask that if the rules didn’t have meaning beyond in-group identity, then what was the point?

We can see this in recent “apostasy” claims about Josh Harris and Hillsong’s Marty Sampson. Both have used language that sounds much more like banners than substance. Harris says “based on everything I thought Christianity was about,” he’s not sure he would consider himself a Christian. Sampson’s language is very similar. They find themselves examining assumptions rather than simply adopting the signifier.

The same thing can be seen in recent excellent writing about the challenges of purity culture two decades later. Following the rules and going with the program had consequences for teens and again as they became adults. [It was also big business, but that’s a different post.] When the impacted women began excavating the assumptions that they had absorbed, it created challenges in their view of the evangelical church, their sense of self, and their relationships.

There’s much more I could write about Fitch’s argument that would be more faithful to his book rather than my reactions to his book. But this post is going to be pretty long, so I’ll leave it for now and move on to Lyz Lenz’s God Land.

Lenz’s book came right after I finished David’s book. Her story is a combination of her own personal journey out of an evangelical church and her marriage and her reportorial treatment of religion in the Midwest. The themes from Us Vs. Them show up but not as explicitly. Her challenge with her evangelical church, including the church plant she was part of, was that she dared to ask the deep questions about what was assumed in the banners of the day. She was then seen as a problem to be fixed. Finding her space on her own terms is part of the personal journey of the book.

But the reportorial part of the book deals with banners and the assumptions of difference as well. Central to the book is people’s belief in small town America, especially “fly-over country” as the real America — the backbone of good values. This is opposed to those other parts of the country — liberal coasts and elites (which causes some leaders to delight in the urban decay of coastal cities while ignoring the infrastructure and economic crises in the small towns). In such a context, church stands in for “community values”. Nostalgia is celebrated as normative, even thought it cannot be recaptured.

In the chapters of Lyz’s book, you can find evangelical opposition on culture war issues, muscular Christianity, and an unreflective self-assurance from religious leaders. In the end, she at least finds a Lutheran church where she can worship on her own terms (even though her former church would likely consider that becoming “one of them”).

Immediately after I finished God Land, Angela Denker’s Red State Christians arrived from Amazon. Angela is a Lutheran pastor and journalist who spent a year traveling to the parts of the country where Christians were most fervently in support of Donald Trump both in 2016 and today.

Her travels took her to a variety of settings, many of them big-name churches. She attended a patriotic service in Texas that managed not to mention Jesus once. She was at Joel Osteen’s church and at Rick Warren’s church. She visited Paula White’s church. She was in Appalachia and Orange County and spent time (which freaked me out) at extremely conservative Catholic Thomas More College.

Denker’s book uncovers some of the same exclusionist patterns that Lenz’s and Fitch’s do. While some people were quite pragmatic in their voting (needing things to be shaken up, dislike of Clinton), others were supporting Trump because that’s what “our people” do. Especially when he’s “fighting for you” as Ralph Reed told Julie Zauzmer recently.

The differing banners that groups are using to organize their members become quite problematic in a complex democracy such as ours. While many argue for the need to pay attention to some “mythical middle” in the electorate, it is hard to see that there is any merit in doing so. The oppositional forces Fitch identifies are too strong.

For all my friends who keep arguing that democrats need to reach out to pro-life moderates, I’d observe that there is no reward for doing so. One of the problems with rigid antagonism is that both side are involved in what Amatai Etzioni called “inverted symbiosis”. They each push the other farther away. Any ground given is a betrayal of the cause. The polling data can be spliced six ways to Sunday. But as long as the right claims that liberals want to abort babies after they’re born and the left claims that the conservatives are doing end-runs around Roe, nobody has any need for a middle.

David Fitch offers hope to move beyond these rigid antagonisms. Consistent with his other writings, it requires us to honestly engage those around us. To avoid the tendency to organize around banners and instead to practice being part of the Kingdom of God unfolding all around us. He closes Us Vs. Them with an optimistic and hopeful challenge:

Can my church be this Jesus in my neighborhood? Gifted with a new practice of reading and preaching the Scripture together, a broader and deeper practice of conversion and mission, a thicker and fuller way of thinking about being his church in the world, can we become his reconciling presence in the world full of strife all around us where we live? Can we make space for his presence in our own lives and in the lives of those around us? Can we be used by God to bring his healing, transforming power into the world? “For he himself is our peace (Eph. 2:14 NIV).

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Robert Mueller: The Book and the Movie

“Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.” Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985: 87)

I spent yesterday watching former special counsel Robert Mueller testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. It’s often difficult to process events like this. Early responses are superficial. We really won’t know the impact of Mueller’s testimony for several news cycles.

(Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

To be fair to Mueller, he didn’t want to testify. There was a lot of negotiation between the committee leadership and Mueller’s people to find the right balance in the hearing. Mueller didn’t want to be a media figure reading from his report. The Department of Justice issued guidelines steering him away from questions about the investigation’s origins or other ongoing investigative matters. Mueller himself was clear that he wasn’t going to add interpretative gloss, which he had earlier referred to as “going beyond the four corners of the report.”

Last night, California representative Jackie Speier was on Brian Williams’ “Eleventh Hour”. Asked if she was surprised at Mueller’s taciturn and minimalist style, she said she wasn’t. These were the issues the Intelligence Committee had discussed with Mueller’s team and this is what she expected given those limitations.

By the break of the morning session with the Judiciary Committee, NBC’s Chuck Todd had tweeted “On substance, the Democrats got what they wanted: … But on optics, this was a disaster.” Todd was rightfully roasted by the public editor of the Columbia Journalism Review later in the day, but he actually captured most media sentiment.

“The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. ‘Credibility’ here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impressions of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability, or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter. This is a matter of considerable importance for it goes to the question of how truth is perceived on television news shows. If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.” Postman (102)

So the optics are a disaster because Mueller did not come off as Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird. I read a couple of references yesterday to the McCarthy hearings: “At long last, sir, have you no decency?” If there was no such moment, could the hearings be worthwhile?

The notion of verisimilitude being primary provided cover for Republican members to frame their favorite conspiracy theories about Mifsud, FISA warrants, and Fusion GPS. Never mind that my Google searches on some of these items (Simpson had dinner with the Russian lawyer!) only showed right-wing media sites. The inquisitors were pushing their sincere outrage at even being in the hearing while maximizing their messaging (“Excuse me Mr. Mueller, I have a limited amount of time remaining.”).

Not that the Democrats were better, especially in the Judiciary Committee. Their attempt to maintain message discipline by referencing each of the ten obstruction examples and ending with their forced litany “no one is above the law” simply underscored the performative aspect of the day.

One of the aspects of modern popular culture that Neil Postman so accurately foretold three decades ago is our reliance on a Good Story. We affix narrative to daily events and treat them as ongoing seasons in a serial drama. President Trump may be a master at incorporating the tropes of reality television (Mr. President, are we going to war with Iran? “We’ll see what happens“) but that’s only because the culture is so accustomed to the idea.

The news media had been telling the story of this ongoing drama with breathless anticipation and countdown clocks. What will happen when Mueller testifies? What will the president say/tweet? Will this be the pivotal moment this story has been building toward?

It was inevitable that the hearings would fall well short of their advance hype. Real life does not measure up to our dramatized imaginings (does anybody actual live like the women in Big Little Lies?).

At the end of the day, we were left with the same key issues one could glean from reading the actual Mueller Report (as Postman would have encouraged): Russian interference, openness to outside information on the part of the Trump campaign, lies to investigators, reluctance to be forthcoming with information, and attempts to impede or obstruct the investigation. Whether these rise to the level of chargeable offenses — regardless of OLC guidelines or legal standards — does not resolve the matters that were in the report. As Congressman Schiff said at the close of the afternoon, these were moral and ethical breaches even if they fell short of legal violations.

At the lunch break between the Judiciary and Intelligence hearings, MSNBC commentator Chuck Rosenberg, former US Attorney and Counsel to FBI Director Mueller, gave the quote of the day: “Sometimes the book is better than the movie.

Evangelical Influencers and Evangelical Populism

I have begun to question whether writing this blog is an exercise in futility.

Like many others, I attempt to use my sociological imagination to understand what is happening within evangelicalism. However valid my points may be, it seems a Sisyphean task. We all seem to be talking to each other and having very little impact either on the broader culture’s understandings of evangelicals or evangelicalism’s limited powers of self-critique.

Over the past week, my social media feed has been filled with references to Peter Wehner’s Atlantic essay, “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity.” Wehner critiques the evangelical embrace of Republican/Trumpian partisanship that has so dominated evangelical conversation. He suggests — following Saint Ambrose, Francis Fukuyama, and Fuller Seminary’s Mark Labberton — that urgent change is required to restore evangelicalism’s public witness before a tipping point is reached.

The political alignment between evangelicals and conservative politics has gotten so tight that it is almost impossible to separate out the causal forces. Ryan Burge shared data recently supporting an argument I’ve made over the last couple of years that the two factors have merged empirically. In fact, this 2017 article by Melissa Wilde argues that we should stop trying to pull the factors of race, class, and gender apart from religious views.

Wehner’s essay opened with a reference to Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition in which Reed celebrated the mutual love evangelicals and Trump have for each other. While that certainly does not ring true of the evangelicals in my social media feed, it does for surprising numbers of others who never read what I write.

At the Faith and Freedom gathering, Natalie Harp (above) was brought on stage to tell her story and the ways in which access to experimental treatments enabled by a law signed by Trump allowed her recovery from bone cancer. She went on say that Trump was like the Good Samaritan. To her, the medical establishment and the political establishment left her “by the side of the road” but Trump was the one to come to her aid. He was the outsider who “gave up his own quality of life” to help others.

My academic brain wants to quickly point out that 1) that is not how the Good Samaritan story goes and 2) the “right to try” bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent and the House by a 91 vote margin — it wasn’t a major Trump initiative.

But that’s not the point. Trump campaigned on “I alone can fix it.” The evangelical culture, long comfortable with strong leaders, took that at face value. This is why evangelical voices like Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, David Barton, Eric Metaxis, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. are more influential that any critiques shared by Wehner, Gerson, Moore (Russell or Beth), Wear, Merritt, or me.

There is a strain of populist evangelical culture that is hard to penetrate. Kristin DuMez observed this trend with regard to Hobby Lobby. That populism is the subtext of Ruth Graham’s excellent piece on the “boy who went to heaven” book and its resulting drama — generalized supernaturalism, publishing entities playing on good news stories that support vague presuppositions, and spiritual warfare alarmists.

That populist strain bleeds easily into Christian Nationalism. You can go on a cruise celebrating Christian nation-ism (a distinction without a difference) where one can celebrate our “Judeo-Christian heritage” and “the importance of self-governance”. The stance taken by the organizers allows those participating to strike a blow against the liberal elites seen as society’s opponents.

Even though Republican mega-funder Miriam Adelson is not evangelical, her suggestion that someday the Bible should include a “book of Trump” would be celebrated, not just by those at the weekly Trump rallies but by rank and file evangelicals.

To return to Wehner’s article, the idea that the Christian cruisers, the heaven-experience readers, or the Hobby Lobby enthusiasts would engage in self correction after reading what Fukuyama, Labberton, or Saint Abrose says about the religion and politics is beyond absurd. Those are intellectuals and not “people of faith.”

Ryan Burge’s post ended by asking why the overlap between white evangelicalism and Republican partisanship is so strong.

That leaves us only two answers: the theological messages and social interactions that white evangelicals experience as part of the religious activity has no impact on their political outlook, or that this religious exposure is so intertwined with Republican politics that the two reinforce each other. 

I understand his first answer. It’s what I’ve been writing about for years — the idea that theology should and must shape religious and political views. But that’s exactly what an academic would focus on.

Ryan’s second answer reminds me of an argument made by Amy Sullivan in 2017. In America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicals, Amy argues that cultural dynamics have significantly more influence that we’ve previously thought.

The result is a malleable religious identity that can be weaponized not just to complain about department stores that hang “Happy Holidays” banners, but more significantly, in support of politicians like Mr. Trump or Mr. [Roy] Moore — and of virtually any policy, so long as it is promoted by someone Fox evangelicals consider on their side of the culture war.

I’m struggling to find a satisfactory answer to the problem I’m identifying. I’m sure many of my social media followers will find it helpful. But it will do virtually nothing to influence the populist evangelical culture that has become so much of a factor in the public perception of religion in general and evangelicals in particular.

Perhaps we need to abandon all of our thoughtful philosophical, theological, and sociological reflections and invest our time in making counter-cultural memes with funny gifs. Not my strong suit, but I can learn.

Challenging Evangelical Paradigms

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in Evangelical World. We lost Rachel Held Evans, Pence gave commencement addresses at Liberty and Taylor about coming evangelical persecution, Beth Moore took on Complementarianism, restrictive state abortion laws were met with some evangelical critique, and, to top it off, James MacDonald was accused of trying to arrange a murder to be carried out on a motorcycle trip to the Creation Museum.

Somehow, all of this disruption got me thinking about Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In 1962, Kuhn analyzed how science is transformed over time. For example, he explored how a Ptolemaic view of cosmology gave way to the Copernican view (which was then disrupted by Einstein and then by quantum physics). One of my sociological theory texts from grad school contained this helpful graphic explaining Kuhn’s theory.

Key to understanding Kuhn is the notion of Normal Science. This is what is accepted among scientists as the way a topic is understood. It is characterized by broad consensus and the establishment of institutional power centers (educational institutions, journals) that teach and research around the key questions and dominant understandings. Empirical evidence that doesn’t fit the dominant view (Anomalies) are ignored or explained away. Over time, however, the magnitude of the anomalies reaches a point where they can no longer be fit into the previous paradigm. New attempts to conceptualize the problem develop which better align with the existing empirical evidence. As those prove more effective explanations, the New Paradigm begins to take shape. Eventually, it becomes the dominant understanding of the younger generation and is institutionalized. In relatively short order, it is established as the new Normal Science in which research and teaching are centered.

Here’s how that relates to shifts in evangelicalism in the US. While we aren’t relying on empirical data in the same way as the natural sciences, there is a way in which establishment forms became dominant and were institutionally reinforced. The raw material from which the paradigm is built is through homogeneity of information. This happens through seminaries, denominational bodies, para-church networks, and dominant periodicals. The voices of Normal Evangelicalism don’t explore the questions that are disparate from the “Orthodox” view.

This presumed homogeneity of Normal Evangelicalism has been challenged with the availability of the Internet. Suddenly other voices were focused on those questions and perspectives that the dominant paradigm thinks shouldn’t be raised. These new voices, disproportionally women’s voices, didn’t arise from the establishment — as Tish Warren observed in 2017:

This social media revolution has had a unique and immense impact on women, in particular. Women’s voices—which historically have been marginalized in the church—are suddenly amplified in this new medium.

In light of Kuhn’s model, it is instructive that Warren refers to these changes as “a crisis”. She’s correct, especially from the perspective of Normal Evangelicalism.

Rachel Held Evans, Jen Hatmaker, and numerous others occupied the space that Warren was describing. They benefitted from the dramatic way in which social media democratizes and deinstitutionalizes communication. They were able to build significant followings precisely because they were willing to wrestle with the anomalies in Normal Evangelicalism.

With Rachel Held Evan’s death two weeks ago, a natural question arises: who will take her place? The Religion News Service’s Emily Miller reflected on this yesterday in a piece titled “Who will be our next Rachel?” It’s an important question, but if I’m right about the democratization of social media, there are a host of people ready to step into that gap. Abby Norman, a recent M.Div. graduate of Candler Theological, wrote as much last week.

The Crisis phase, however, isn’t yet formed into a new Normal. This means that conflict is the story of the day. The Mother’s Day weekend interchange between Beth Moore and Owen Strachen was a perfect illustration. Beth Allison Barr captured well the importance of that exchange:

I think Beth Moore has decided not to be left out of the “divine loop” that means everything for evangelical women. This is our “critical moment.” And Beth Moore has stepped out in front holding her giant-size weight.

What was particularly telling that weekend was the groundswell of voices within evangelical circles who shared and celebrated Beth’s twitter thread. People were eager to weigh in on the need to provide a serious response to the implicit assumptions of too much of complementarian argument.

Voices challenging the Establishment paradigm can be seen in a host of other places as well: the #ChurchToo response to abuse in places like Willow Creek and some SBC congregations, the alignment of evangelicalism with pro-Trump triumphalism, critiques of the purity culture movement, and the recent actions of the United Methodist Church on LGBT issues.

It remains to be seen what is on the other side of the Crisis period.. My best guess, following Kuhn, is that new voices which are addressing tough questions and realistically struggling with them through the lens of vital Christian faith will prevail. David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me suggests that the younger generation is eager to engage that struggle.

Building a New Paradigm is hard. The lack of power centers relative to Establishment Evangelicalism makes that more difficult. Yet seeing that develop is the most likely outcome over the long run. I can’t conclude this piece better than Kristin DuMez concluded hers from this morning, so I’ll simply quote her.

It remains to be seen what sort of power Beth Moore and the network of evangelical women she has forged will exert in the face of conservative evangelical networks. It also remains to be seen what will be come of the coalition of progressive Christian women Rachel Held Evans helped forge without Evans herself at its hub. In many ways, however, the future of American evangelicalism will unfold in terms of the relative power struggles within and among such networks and coalitions.

Rachel Held Evans and the Future of Evangelicalism

No single person has been more important to my thinking about the changing nature of evangelicalism than Rachel Held Evans. Like thousands of others who have been impacted by her writing and her encouragement, I’m struggling to process the sense of loss I feel at her death.

On this May the Fourth, I keep hearing Obi Wan Kenobi saying “there has been a great disturbance in the force”. Something is wrong with the world today and a great void has been opened with Rachel’s passing. I’m sure that those who love her will step into that space, but it will take us a bit of time to feel comfortable taking on that mantle.

In her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, she characterized herself as the Christian girl who knew all the answers — Bible drills, youth group contests, apologetics classes. Great at debate, she knew how to pick holes in secular arguments to show how Christian worldview answers could stand up to scrutiny. And then she found that the broader world didn’t fit the tight apologetics box that she had constructed.

What does one do when the world is more complicated than one’s faith perspective suggests? Many simply abandon the faith as a bunch of fairy tales. Others double-down on their prior perspectives and attempt to pretend everything is fine.

Not Rachel.

For her, the conflict was the beginning of a long and challenging journey to make sense of her faith in ways that grappled with the complexity she found. That she never forgot her roots even while frustrated with contemporary expressions of evangelicalism is testimony to how hard she worked to have it all make sense in a Jesus-honoring way.

Many in the evangelical world did not see her hard work, courage, and faith as I did. They saw someone who wasn’t sufficiently biblical, who was speaking beyond her training, and who, of course, was a woman attempting to correct men. I like to think that Year of Biblical Womanhood was directed at those critics.

Her concerns about the institutional expressions of evangelicalism were captured in a piece she wrote on the CNN Belief blog on why millennials were leaving the church. My response affirming that piece remains the single highest one-day view count this blog has ever had.

The complexities of life she tried to work through included views of science, acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, and the nature of salvation for those in foreign lands. When conservatives evangelicals were willing to stop supporting needy children as a message to WorldVision opposing its proposed stance to hire LGBTQ staff members, she declared herself no longer an evangelical.

I’ve always taken her departure from evangelicalism more in the spirit of “if that’s what it takes, then I can’t be part of it”. That’s more or less what she told her home church pastor as she described in Searching for Sunday.

And yet Rachel was committed to a life of faith. She believed the Bible is God’s word for God’s people and thought it should be taken seriously. She was devoted to following Jesus as Savior and guide and longed for the coming Kingdom. She gave herself to endlessly sharing that message with thousands of others.

If that’s not the Bebbington Quadrilateral, I don’t know what is.

I was privileged to attend the Evolving Faith Rachel hosted along with Sarah Bessey in Montreat last October. It was a delightful event with a great lineup of speakers: you can find my account in the archives.

Three things stand out to me as I remember Rachel at that event. The first was her leading a conversation about all the good seed that had been planted through her evangelical upbringing. The second was her interest in honestly struggling with the various perspectives those great speakers shared. Third, and most importantly, it was clear that Rachel was a person who loved relating to others whether that were her fellow conference speakers or random people who came up to talk (there’s a reason the book signing session ran an hour long!).

Rachel showed us all that evangelicalism has more resilience than either its most vicious critics or it staunchest defenders have ever considered. That it was okay to ask yourself questions about faith and culture while striving to follow Jesus. That God is not afraid of the questions or the moments of doubt.

That in the midst of the politics and the structures and the patriarchy and the pain, there was still Good News and that we need to embrace it.

In her much too short life, she lit a path that shows us a way forward. It will now fall to those she influenced to step into the void she leaves and continue the work. Based on what I’ve read online today, I’m tremendously encouraged about what the future holds in store.

Thank you RHE for all you brought to us. For your wit and grace and honesty and struggle and faith, we give God thanks.

The Mueller Report: On Law and Morals

Four weeks ago I wrote this post about the Barr letter summarizing his views of the Mueller Report. This week we finally got to see that actual Report. Like many others, I devoted several hours Thursday night to give a cursory read of what Mueller presented.

Cover of the Mueller report.

The report is laid out in two volumes; the first on Russian election interference and the hacking of DNC e-mails and the second on matters of obstruction of justice. As expected, the first part of Volume I repeated in narrative form everything that had been covered in the earlier indictments of Russian agencies and individuals.

Mueller and his team were meticulous in spelling out what the legal standards they would use to conclude that a crime had occurred. There had to be intent to commit the offense with clear knowledge of the illegality involved and a demonstrable act. There was no evidence that the Trump campaign was aware of the “active measures” to impact the election (although Manafort’s sharing of polling data fits that supposition) or that the DNC servers were going to be hacked.

It appears so far (this may change when the likely Stone redactions are removed) that there was no illegality with regard to the sharing and celebration over the WikiLeaks dump of the hacked e-mails. The same is true with the Trump campaign using/sharing the active measures items from groups like TNGOP (one of the Russian fake twitter accounts).

Yet it is troubling moral behavior even if not illegal. The “win at all costs” mentality which demonizes opponents and believes the worst of others is deeply problematic. Imagine a shady appliance store selling hugely discounted flat-screen TVs. You may not be involved in stealing TVs or in receiving stolen property but you know these prices are too good to be true. You didn’t coordinate (or “collude”) but you knew illegal stuff happened somewhere along the way and just didn’t care.

The rest of volume one is about other contacts between the Trump campaign/administration and the subsequent lying/misdirection about those contacts. There are a lot of these. The Mueller team explain that the laws about conspiracy (not collusion) would apply if parties clearly and definitively acted in concert to violate laws governing foreign influence, campaign finance, or fraud. The team did not charge any individuals with conspiracy on any of these grounds.

Again, things that fall short of legal standards still raise troubling moral issues. Some of the outreaches to Russians were about legitimate policy and yet were covered up. Others might have questionable status but were not brought to completion. The avoidance of standard channels and the lying about what had happened has been a feature and not a bug of the Trump administration.

Volume two is about obstruction. The obstruction question hinges on several elements of law as well as the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel policy around indicting a sitting president. The report makes clear that to violate the law, one would have to knowingly attempt to interfere with an ongoing investigation or proceeding with some corrupt motive. The decision to consider the OLC guidelines reflects a concern that even a sealed indictment puts a defendant at great disadvantage because of the impossibility of mounting an affirmative defense. So proceeding without a prosecutorial decision occurs out of a desire to be fair to the administration within the guidelines of due process.

Yet, in spite of the legal limitations, the Mueller report is clear about the concerning nature of what occurred. This is evident in this description from the beginning of the obstruction volume.

Beginning in 2017, the President of the United States took a variety of actions towards the ongoing FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and related matters that raised questions about whether he had obstructed justice.

That these actions occurred is not in question. The report instead explores whether they approach the legal standard, the OLC guidelines notwithstanding. The Mueller team divides the obstruction questions into two time periods — before and after the appointment of the Special Counsel. Activities prior to that, while unusual, fail the legal test because there was no investigation related to the president and his team. Matters after that point raise more difficult questions as some of the incidents do appear to be designed to disrupt the ongoing investigation. This is why the following paragraph appears at least three times by my count:

[I]f we had confidence that after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not obstruct justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the available legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

Again, this conclusion seems to fit with a distinction between what can be legally charged and what is of deep moral concern. The President appeared to be willing to do what ever might work to his advantage including clear deception and giving orders that subordinates refused to follow because they were so far outside the norm (and likely opened them up to personal liability.

This pragmatism over morality endorses a “whatever accomplishes the goals” strategy. I was reminded reading the responses to the report of this PRRI poll from October of 2016. It asked respondents if a candidate with immoral personal characteristics could still be effective in public life. While only 40% of Americans agreed in 2011, over 60% agreed in 2016. For white evangelicals, this jumped from 30% to 70%.

The two days since the report was released have shown the same tenuous views of morality. Administration talking points cherry-pick pundit or politician overreach of what the Mueller report would show and use those as indicative of all media or political figures. Sarah Sanders directly contradicts what she told the Special Counsel’s office, knowing that her denials will likely work.

There are voices calling for impeachment hearings, notably Senator Warren. But the issues of impeachment are complicated. While many have argued that impeachment is intended for more than just illegal behavior (see Clinton 1998), the phrase “high crimes” has become entrenched in our public discourse. In the absence of crimes in the Mueller report, it’s hard to see where impeachment proceedings would lead.

It is far more important that attention be paid to the moral questions raised by the Mueller report. Congressional hearings on administrative oversight are important, not as a means of scoring political points but as illumining distortions and overreach by the administration. Reporters should be getting politicians on the record on the importance of moral consistency and not on political gamesmanship (kudos to Romney for his meager attempt at this). The question of whether obstruction is acceptable should be asked at town hall meetings (if they happen). The 2020 candidates should be required to address how they will restore norms within a functioning government. And voters must move away from a pragmatic focus on personal preferences to support for a moral president who looks out for the citizenry as a whole and not just political interests.

The Importance of Intent: A Quick Note on the Barr Letter about the Mueller Report

Friday afternoon we learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had delivered his final report to Attorney General William Barr. Yesterday, the public got to see Barr’s interpretation of the report, marking the official end of the Special Counsel’s 24 month review.

To recap, Mueller was appointed to review three issues — whether Russia interfered with the 2016 election, if anyone in the Trump campaign acted in coordination with that attempt to interfere with the election, and if the President obstructed justice with regard to either of the first two points.

The answer to the first question is clearly “yes”. As Mueller made clear in the major indictments out of his office, the Russians intentionally disrupted the 2016 campaign by stoking anti-Clinton and pro-Trump sentiment on social media. Russian actors also hacked into the DNC servers and worked to disseminate the results to the broader public in order to weaken Clinton.

The answer to the second question is “no” but has to be qualified. Because the coordination was to be specifically about the attempts to influence the election (as opposed to other avenues of coordination), there was insufficient evidence that the Trump campaign intended for the Russians to engage in election meddling. This is not to suggest that the campaign was morally upright: they seemed eager to take advantage of whatever the Russians had learned through their independent initiatives. As many commentators have noted, the Trump campaign never once contacted authorities to express concern about Russian outreach. But crimes of omission are notoriously difficult to address. One has to demonstrate a willful negligence, being fully aware of the harm that would result. That’s not to say that the Trump campaign/administration wasn’t attempting to coordinate. The efforts at backchannels and shifting stories about Trump Tower Moscow (or New York) suggest a willingness to take advantage of a Russian relationship, but not in ways that violate the law even if they violate operational norms.

Which brings us to obstruction. We all heard the president make his quip about Russia and the 30,000 e-mails. We also heard the interview with Lester Holt and the reference to “the Russia thing.” Why don’t those rise to the level of prosecution?

Barr’s letter quotes Mueller that the evidence on obstruction neither accuses the president nor exonerates him. I would suggest that this also is due to the challenge of intent. To prove obstruction in court, one would have to demonstrate that the president acted in particular ways that he knew would disrupt the ongoing investigation into the election interference.

Here is where I think Mueller ran into a wall. First, since 2016 Trump has been unwilling to accept the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered. Furthermore, the president’s twitter feed provides a shotgun effort to minimize anyone involved in the investigation with false claims of Deep State actors and insurance policies and illegal investigations (which he has repeated in the last 24 hours while claiming he trusts the results.) The big problem in demonstrating intent is that Trump has a long record (well established by journalists like Daniel Dale) of saying whatever he needs to say at the moment.

It appears that the guiding principle of the president is to protect his legitimacy and denounce his critics. But his comments, as we have seen, do not hold to measures of logical consistency. They are purely tactical statements based on his need to maintain image. So one day he can say that he fired Comey because of the Clinton investigation and the next day he can say it was because of Russia and the next he can say it’s because the FBI had lost confidence. It becomes impossible to draw a straight line between any one of these comments and subsequent actions.

This is all remarkably depressing because it worked. The president’s willingness to say whatever he needs to say without the shame he should feel for lying to the press and the public winds up undermining any legal attempt to hold him accountable for the messages he shares.

As Michael Cohen testified to the Oversight Committee, this “flexibility” makes the demonstration of intent challenging, if not impossible. If he didn’t mean what he said on any given occasion, there is no intent to obstruct.